Is a Radical Church Possible?
Is radical criticism of the Church by its ministers the enemy within or its salvation?
Mainstream Christian denominations are facing critical decline in the United Kingdom. Church leaders call for new strategies for growth but will these be effective?
In this book, Adrian Alker calls for an honest look at the life of Jesus and the faith of the Church and suggests a radical and more honest reshaping of the churches to enable them to face the challenges of the present day.
The author has been ordained as an Anglican priest for over thirty years and recognises the important contributions which church congregations can and do make to their communities and the wider world. He passionately believes that the Church must become more Jesus shaped and less concerned with its own structures and beliefs in order to attract new members.
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Adrian Alker begins his book with an introduction and an explanation. He explains that he grew to faith in a liberal, questioning church. His history is of questioning doctrine, taking the modern world seriously, and a commitment to serving the poor and disadvantaged. He has recently retired, and wants to share his thinking about being a Christian and being ‘church’. The eleven chapters of the book are organised into two groups: ‘Being Honest about Jesus’, and ‘Being Honest about the Church’. Each chapter includes some questions for discussion and material for further reading. In the first set of chapters Alker begins by looking at the way Jesus is portrayed in literature and art – the human and historic aspects of Jesus against the iconic Christ. He goes on to consider the perspectives of the gospel writers in their accounts of Jesus’ early life, arguing that the wider concerns these reflect are of value, although they undermine a single ‘true’ Christmas story. In a third chapter he looks at the adult Jesus, his prophetic commitment to the fulfilment of the Torah; his opposition to the religious leaders of his day; the importance of his own experience of God, and the imminence of God’s kingdom; his reputation as a healer; and his inclusion of the broken and shunned. He asks his readers to consider which elements of Jesus’ life appear to be factual, and which may be metaphorical or legendary, and suggests that Jesus was radical in his consistent proclamation of an alternative to the Empire of Rome. From here he goes on to address the death and resurrection of Jesus, examining key ideas about atonement, and looking at some debates about the resurrection: the historical ‘truths’ in the gospel accounts, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection for life after death, and the overall significance of resurrection. In the final chapter of this group, Alker discusses the gap between academic scholarship and the everyday life of the church, and suggests that in a new millennium, the two need bringing together in a radical retelling of the story of Jesus, and a fresh understanding of God. The second group of chapters are grouped around ‘Being Honest about the Church’. Alker begins by sketching the changing shape of the church through his own experiences. He highlights numerical decline, the impact of modernism, the questions of SOF about the whole religious enterprise – and God – as a social construction, and the desire of traditionalists for a safe anchorage. Alongside this he places the church’s record in social action, as a community espousing kingdom values, the continuing value given to spirituality, impulses of faith, and authenticity. He goes on to explore the bible – its ubiquity and its usefulness. Next he considers ‘Spirited Worship’, where silence and awe combine with fellowship, and attenders are not made to feel guilty or trapped into straightjacketing orthodoxy. Chapter nine considers the shape of the church, contrasting the current hierarchical model with ‘round table’ communities of radical inclusion, and asserting that the church ‘does not exist to grow’! Alker addresses benchmarks for passionate people following the Way and suggests that as well as showing love and compassion, they fight against injustice in the world, and care for the natural world. Finally he examines the ‘individual journey into the mystery of God’. He suggests that ‘boundaries between theism, agnosticism and nontheism are often wafer-thin’. In a postscript – in answer to the question of his title – he concludes affirmatively but says: ‘Listen deeply to the world and make sure you are answering the questions people are asking, not the ones you want to answer.’ Alker says that his readers will have to judge ‘whether or not I would have been better tending my plants at the bottom of the garden after thirty five years of ministry’. My answer is no. However, an important question for potential readers might be who is he intending to share his thinking with? My guess is that he envisages a readership of people engaged in ministry, who might need their thinking nudged into a new place. Whilst the book is well worth exploring, I think that little in it will come as news to anyone trained for ministry in the past decade or so. The accessible writing style and thought- provoking questions mean that it may be better suited as a challenging resource for discussion by lay people who want to go beyond passive attention to sermons and grapple with what their faith means in the 21st century, and in their day-to-day life. Dr Pauline Pearson is Professor in Nursing at the University of Northumbria and a nonͲsƟpendiary minister in the Church of England. ~ Pauline Pearson , Sea of Faith Network
This is a remarkable book, written by a remarkable man. It is also a simple book. I do not mean by simple that it is simple minded but that it is easy to understand. This book brings the best of contemporary scholarship to the lives and minds of those faithful souls who still occupy the pews in our churches ~ Bishop Jack Spong, Foreword
We have in God a radical vision of distributive justice for our earth. We have in Jesus a radical vision of its lived presence on our earth. But where is the radical vision of a Church that lives with that God and in that Jesus? Read this book and learn how what is necessary must be possible. Learn also that you are the Church, while the Church lasts. And now Honest to God, Honest to Jesus, and Honest to Church abide, these three, but the hardest of these is Honest to Church. ~ John Dominic Crossan